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Estonians back home after Lebanon kidnap ordeal

16 july 2011, 16:22
Seven Estonian tourists taken hostage in Lebanon were held in Syria for part of their four-month kidnap ordeal, they said Friday after returning to their Baltic homeland, AFP reports.

"We were held in three different secret locations by the eight terrorists, in both Lebanon and Syria. The big advantage was we were together, and that unity gave us the strength to believe we would see a happy end," Madis Paluoja told reporters at Tallinn airport.

"At one point we all lived in the same room with the eight kidnappers and their eight Kalashnikovs," he added.

Less than 24 hours after the men were freed in Lebanon, a special Estonian Air plane carrying them landed in rainy Tallinn shortly before 4:00 am (0100 GMT) Friday after having flown to the Lebanese capital Beirut to collect them.

Besides Paluoja, the other freed men were Jaan Jagomagi, Kalev Kaosaar, Martin Metspalu, Andre Pukk, Priit Raistik and August Tillo.

They met with relatives in private at the airport, before speaking to reporters.

"Our father, sons, husbands and brothers are free! These four months were long and exhausting," their relatives said earlier in a joint statement.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted the "resilience and willpower" of his seven countrymen.

The men, in their 30s and early 40s, were kidnapped at gunpoint on March 23 while on a cycling holiday in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, after arriving from neighbouring Syria.

A police official in Lebanon told AFP they were released Thursday morning in the Bekaa Valley town of Sahel al-Taybi.

The men appeared relaxed in Tallinn, sharing jokes.

"My next bike trip will be probably around the house under the watchful eyes of my wife," Paluoja said.

But Kaosaar noted there were "tense moments" during their captivity, notably when their captors asked if they were Jews -- or from Denmark, homeland of a cartoonist who sparked Muslim ire in 2005 for a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who had spent the months since the kidnapping shuttling to and from Lebanon, made the round trip with the plane.

"I met the Lebanese prime minister and foreign minister during my short stay in Beirut. The investigation is not over, and we will cooperate with Lebanese authorities to find all the criminals involved with the kidnapping," Paet said in Tallinn.

The case had been shrouded in mystery, but nine people, Lebanese and foreigners, were detained in Lebanon in connection with the kidnapping.

The freed men appeared to be in good health.

Asked if they had been well-treated, Paet responded: "There is nothing human about being taken hostage".

Estonia turned to fellow European Union members and NATO allies, notably France, for help because the former Soviet-ruled nation of 1.3 million has only a small diplomatic presence in the Middle East.

In Beirut Thursday, Paet had thanked Lebanese authorities for their "solidarity and support".

"It was a quite long and very serious international operation and investigation. Many countries contributed to the probe, but I can’t mention details at the moment," he added.

The abductors -- believed to be a previously unknown group called Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform) -- had reportedly demanded a ransom.

The cyclists had appealed for help in videos posted on the Internet in April and May. The first video was uploaded in the Syrian capital Damascus, investigators determined.

In the videos, the men did not present any demands on behalf of their captors nor specify what country they were in.

A third video was emailed to several of their relatives in June.

"We were not told what the kidnappers want and we have no information about them asking for money," Paluoja said. "All the text we read in the videos was written for us."

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